Charlie Hebdo – not safe for Bristol students

Gabriel Dorey

Topics Free Speech

The flagrant disregard Britain’s students’ unions show towards the principles of free speech and democracy is now wearyingly predictable – like the incessant death rattle of a terminally flatulent dog.

So it was hardly surprising that the University of Bristol Students’ Union (UBU) recently conceded that Charlie Hebdo, even before the attack carried out on its offices in Paris earlier this month, would have been banned from sale in UBU outlets. The reason? Charlie Hebdo would violate UBU’s Safe Space policies.

In case you’ve never heard of Safe Space policies, they are a declaration of our universal right to be free from judgement and offence. They are now enforced by sanctimonious students’ unions across Britain and are written vaguely enough to be applicable to pretty much anything that troubles the union high-command. This is handy in a culture where our definition of what constitutes acceptable speech falls prey to constant revision.

Now, the question as to whether UBU would tolerate the sale of Charlie Hebdo on campus is a hypothetical one. Charlie Hebdo has never been sold on Bristol’s campus, purely because there was no demand for it. But Bradbrook’s admission reflected the problem afflicting students’ unions today – that free expression has been usurped by the obsession with censoring anything that might damage the apparently delicate emotions of minority groups.

It’s wrong for the Safe Space policy pre-emptively to censor any magazine just because it has the potential to upset certain students. The right to judge, criticise and even mock other people’s beliefs is the foundation of an enlightened, liberal society. If students’ unions infringe on that right, even in the interests of empathy, it is not only sanctimonious – it’s also immoral.

Free speech must be absolute if it is to have any meaning. It can’t just apply to modes of speech you deem tolerable. No Platform and Safe Space policies are immensely patronising and stifle the kind of open, boisterous debate many of us went to university for in the first place. It’s time UBU looked past its braindead moralising and understood this.

Gabriel Dorey is a writer and student at the University of Bristol.

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Topics Free Speech


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